The Fight for Fair Textiles

By: Kari Lindberg

Using the backstrap loom passed down from her grandmother to her mother and now to her, Carolina del Lopez sits on her dirt floor and passes wooden instruments through her weaving. She pushes and pulls her wooden batten with each new line of thread added to the textile. Speaking in Spanish accented with her native K’iché, she describes how the huipil decorated with birds native to her region, which she has been working on for eight hours a day for three months, will be sold for only 400 quetzales, approximately USD $54.

Over the past 10 years, huipil designs like Carolina’s have become increasingly visible in stores and markets throughout Guatemala in non-traditional forms, like laptop bags, purses, and cosmetic and coin purses. The demand for such recycled huipil products is growing.

“Actually, the demand for recycled huipil goods has been really strong,” said Mayra Verónica Izara, coordinator for the Pixan Designs’ housing project. The Pixan cooperative based in Quetzaltenango strives to empower marginalized women, mostly indigenous, by allowing them to support themselves through their weavings. But Izara explains that “the prices of these accessories [often] don’t represent the time and effort that was used to create them.

Textile cooperatives throughout Guatemala like Pixan cite middle men who go into rural villages as the reason why women don’t earn fair wages. They often coerce women into selling their second-hand or newly woven huipiles for abusively low prices.

Amparo E. de Leon Ralda, President of the Association of Women for Artistic Development, also known as Trama Textiles, says that when middle men ask women how much their huipiles cost, women often say 400 to 500 quetzales. Yet the men generally offer as little as 100 quetzales, preying on the desperation of women from impoverished families. “These people devalue women and their work.”

The quality of the thread that is used in a product, also makes the difference of the price of it. Photo: Kari Lindberg

Izara goes one step further, asserting that society at large fails to pay women fair prices for their huipiles and prevents weavers from seeing themselves as artists expressing their culture. “The price paid for your huipil should reflect the dedication and months of effort necessary to create it.” She said that it is ethically unjust “to have markets, like Chichicastenango and Antigua, overrun with cheap huipiles at those [low] prices because sellers haven’t bought them at fair prices.”

But it is not just the recycled huipiles and the accessories created out of them that cause anguish. Allison Havens, Director of Y’abal, a social enterprise program that uses textiles to empower indigenous women and their families in rural Guatemalan highland communities, says that the increasing influx of fake goods marketed as “handmade” and the widespread of availability of huipiles made out of Chinese-produced fabrics are also devaluing the weavers’ products. “Recycled huipiles and fake textile products are diminishing the value of real huipiles,” she said.

Sublimated fabric made in China, a copy of the Guatemalan Mayan textiles. Photo: Kari Lindberg

Devalued recycled huipil products contribute to the ethical problems surrounding Guatemalan textiles, but that doesn’t mean all recycled huipil products are negativity impacting weavers. Many Guatemalan textile cooperatives produce accessories out of recycled huipiles and pay women fairly for their work.

Such cooperatives say that huipiles can be recycled correctly and fairly. The fairness of the process simply depends on one thing: that artists are allowed to set the price for their work and have that price honored. Pixan, as Izra said, uses recycled huipiles as a way to pay its weavers and acknowledge their artistry. She said, “Recycled huipil products represent a way to further recognize and support the women that labored to create them.”

The underlying issue is the need to find ways to get indigenous artists more income, as many of these artists live in extreme poverty. The World Bank reports that 59% of the country lives in poverty. Poverty is disproportionately present in indigenous communities; UNICEF reports that 80% of indigenous children in Guatemala suffer from chronic malnutrition, compared with around 45% of the total population.

“There is a need to produce recycled huipil products because without it the artists won’t have another way to make money and purchase their basic needs for their families,” said Izra. “When there are no other alternatives to make money, recycled huipiles are the best option, and the ideal situation is when they are valued like art.”

However, charging the full price of what a huipil is worth to provide fair wages is not without its costs. Trama Textiles sells their recycled huipil laptop covers for 435 quetzales (USD $58), recycled huipil pillow cases for 320 quetzales (USD $44), and small recycled huipil pouch bags for 220 quetzales (USD $29). Given these prices, very few Guatemalans can afford to purchase them even if they’re interested, as the average Guatemalan salary is estimated at 19,556 quetzales (USD $2,578). Therefore, appropriately-priced recycled huipiles are aimed at the tourist market.

Capturing the interest of tourists and their dollars is a driving force in the increased production and use of recycled huipiles. “Foreigners don’t buy huipiles, they don’t wear them, but if they see them in made into a bag they exclaim how beautiful it is and often purchase them.” In this manner, Ralda explains recycled huipiles “are a help to the women, and aren’t devaluing their products; they add to the ways they can earn their money.”

Foreign interest in handmade recycled huipiles and other handmade Guatemalan artistic goods has extended beyond Guatemala’s borders. Ethical Fashion Guatemala says that as US based e-commerce sites are increasingly used to turn a profit, Americans and Europeans come to Guatemala to purchase artisan handcrafts at abusively low prices and then resell them online, pocketing profits gained by exploiting Guatemalan artists.

The Chichicastengo market is famous for selling traditional Guatemalan textiles; However, you can also find fake textiles made in China. Photo: Diana Pastor

Using bots to scan for specific keywords and images, Ethical Fashion Guatemala founders James Dillon and Kara Goebel are targeting pirated Guatemalan designs on Esty, Google, and Shopify. Although still in its early stages, Ethical Fashion Guatemala has uncovered over 64,000 products on Etsy that have violated design copyrights of Guatemalan artists.

Dillan and Goebel have been using digital tools to support Guatemalan artists, but women weaver organizations have been doing grassroots organizing for years. They are pushing the Guatemalan government to pass a law that would recognize their creations as their intellectual property, afford them stronger copyright protections, and recognize weavers as the owners of their designs.

“This law represents the fight we Maya women must wage to gain the value and recognition our work deserves,” Ralda said.

Indeed, for Carolina, who has been making huipiles since she was 10, the law represents a way to ensure she gets a fair wage for the huipiles she sells to middle men. “If I can have my rights protected as a weaver, then that means I can get a fair wage for every and huipil I sell and one of my huipiles that is turned into recycled huipil products.”

Carolina Lopez and her mother, picking the threads to make a weave. Cover Photo: Kari Lindberg